October In-Focus: Climate change mitigation and adaptation: Why it matters for small-scale fisheries


“Small-scale coastal fisheries are increasingly becoming vulnerable to climate and environmental changes because of their direct dependence and a range of interactions not only with the major drivers causing these changes but most importantly with the resulting consequences for their lives, livelihoods, and their entire social-ecological identities."

- Prateep Nayak, 2021

The quote from Prof. Prateep Nayak, who leads a new research project ‘Vulnerability to Viability (V2V): Global Partnership for Building Strong Small-Scale Fisheries Communities,’ is a good reminder of the differentiated effects of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of small-scale fisheries around the world. It also points to the need for better thinking around climate change mitigation and adaptation, which is critical and timely given the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). While “taking action now to end coal power, accelerate the roll out of electric vehicles, tackle deforestation and reduce methane emissions” is imperative to reach “net zero emissions by the middle of the century”, and “protecting the most vulnerable is a priority for the UK’s COP26 Presidency”, it is notable that there is currently no mention of fisheries, aquaculture, or oceans in the COP26 Explained document that outlines the goals for COP26.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 13, Climate Action, which is central to COP26, focuses on resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-hazards (Target 13.1), integrating climate change measures into policies and planning (Target 13.2), improving education (Target 13.3), and mobilizing financial support for climate change mitigation for developing countries (Target 13.a) with a particular focus on supporting climate change planning and management for women, youth, and marginalized communities (Target 13.b). While these targets in the SDG 13 emphasize a focus on small-island developing nations, developing countries, and marginalized communities, there is again no specific mention of fisheries or aquaculture. In fact, "Ocean ecosystems" ranks as the lowest priority among priority areas identified in Nationally Determined Contributions to SDG13 based on the number of countries that included adaptation information. A lack of focus on fishers, small-scale fisheries and aquaculture, and marine ecosystems is concerning. With the increasing recognition of the vital role played by the oceans in maintaining the healthy functioning of this planet, and the dependency of lives and livelihoods of vulnerable communities on the ocean, more must be done to incorporate fisheries and ocean sustainability in the discussion about climate change.

Recent research by Tigchelaar et al. (2021) demonstrates the high risks climate hazards pose for fishing communities, particularly in Africa, South and South-East Asia, and Small Island Developing Nations. This is also what Dr. Mahmudul Islam, a member of OFI Module I, V2V and TBTI, observes in his work on the vulnerability of climate change-affected coastal regions around the world:

…Small-scale fisheries face challenges from a wide array of complex biophysical, social, economic, technological and political realities and changes that make them vulnerable. This vulnerability differs in complexity around pressures and stressors and sociopolitical conditions.”

- Mahmudul Islam, 2021

Similar challenges and vulnerability face small-scale fisheries and coastal communities in developed countries. Studies show, for instance, that ocean warming and acidification is changing the composition of fisheries and the distribution of fishes and shellfish that sustain people along the east coast of North America - introducing warm water species and pushing north cold-water species (Kleisner et al., 2017; Wilson et al., 2020). According to Serpetti et al. (2017), ocean warming will likely lead to a decline in Atlantic cod and other demersal fish species under current and future IPCC warming scenarios. Further, snow crab, American lobster, and other shellfish species are also vulnerable to warming and acidification, which could lead to reduced recruitment, lower catches, income, and food security for fishers (Wilson et al., 2020). Finally, the intensification of hurricanes and tropical storms along the Atlantic coast of North America is creating unsafe working conditions, shorter fishing seasons, loss of income, and reduced food security.

While climate change challenges on small-scale fisheries are immense, something can still be done. As Dr. William Cheung of the University of British Columbia points out, however, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to climate change adaptation. Regional and context-specific risk-reduction interventions are critical to addressing the broader social-ecological context for each community, fishery, region, or country.

“Addressing climate risks on global aquatic food systems requires justice-informed collaboration towards climate-proofing of aquatic food systems that transcends national and regional boundaries”

- Dr. William Cheung (Cheung, 2021)

Dr. Cheung further argues that countries that face compound climate risks across multiple aquatic food systems require urgent attention, and that transboundary resource sharing that is “climate-smart and climate-just” may be key to supporting vulnerable coastal communities.

The breadth of climate hazards facing small-scale fisheries globally highlights the importance of context-specific approaches to climate adaptation and the need for a transdisciplinary dialogue about climate mitigation and adaptation, as endorsed by Prateep Nayak:

“… depends on whether and when adaptation becomes the prerogative of the coastal small-scale fisheries communities without excessive external instructions and pressures but with enough support through processes of collaboration, co-creation and co-production of responses to climate/environmental challenges and their resulting vulnerabilities. In order to do it right, adaptation must reflect the principle that ‘it is of, by and for the coastal small-scale fisheries communities.”

Join the conversation about ‘Getting ADAPTATION Right’ for small-scale, coastal communities, at the Getting IT Right – the North America Regional Congress in the 4th World Small-Scale Fisheries Congress series in June next year. Submit your abstract now!


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Cheung, W. (2021, September 21). Compound climate risks threaten aquatic food system benefits [Presentation]. Ocean Nexus Center Virtual Open House. Seattle, WA, University of Washington. https://oceannexus.uw.edu/

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